The recent launch of two residential Wi-Fi products—from eero and Luma—is very welcome. They highlight just how stale the traditional offerings had become. But their central technical improvement should be unnecessary.
The new devices apply the Nest treatment to Wi-Fi routers rather than thermostats. As with most brilliant ideas, one’s first reaction is why didn’t someone do this before, it’s so obvious?
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Some good industrial design (internal antennas help) makes the device small and attractive, a gadget most of us would be happy, even proud to display on a shelf or side-table. Simplified out-of-box setup uses an iPhone app. The configuration is graphical and policy based: You tell it what to accomplish, and the app configures the system to oblige. Easy device onboarding, secure and segregated guest networking, sophisticated parental controls, foolproof configuration and security. Add a mysterious dash of cloud reporting and cloud control for network optimization, and the home Wi-Fi proposition is transformed.
The contrast between this modern approach and older residential Wi-Fi routers shows what happens when a market advances in linear fashion. The main selling features of a home router have for years been lower cost and higher headline speeds. This resulted in standard reference hardware implementations, packaged unimaginatively; the physical design and user-interface were contracted out to the lowest bidders, and we got what we paid for. With the exception of Apple (and Google, with a niche product), these are beastly products that even experts shrink from tinkering with.
But the primary technical advance promoted by eero and Luma is, in the vernacular, “Wi-Fi that doesn’t suck.” These startups have seized on the universally recognized coverage issue: A single Wi-Fi router installed at the most convenient spot in the house is unable to provide reliable building-wide coverage in perhaps 10 percent of cases. This is due to the basic Wi-Fi standard, whose usable range has been little improved since the original specification was written. That this state of affairs has continued through 15 years of residential Wi-Fi is a scandal. The technology is unable to fully satisfy its most popular use case.
The solution offered by these startups is to wirelessly mesh-connect several units—the standard package contains three—distributed around the house. That offers the opportunity for technology to pick the best channels and coordinate blanket coverage between them. It is effective, but expensive: A set of devices retails for several hundred dollars. These startups must have agonized over the decision, as it severely limits their market, but they clearly concluded that reliable home Wi-Fi requires a multi-router network.
No excuse for the Wi-Fi industry to not try
It is true that maintaining acceptable link speeds over long distances is a challenge of “physics”—given the frequency bands Wi-Fi operates in—legally allowed transmit power and the regulatory envelope. But that is no excuse for not trying. The status quo can be improved. Techniques are widely known, but the multi-billion-dollar Wi-Fi industry has failed to find space in its agenda.
Even today, the Wi-Fi Alliance work on extending range—and some work is underway—is tied into the Internet of Things project. Wi-Fi HaLow is aimed at the new (to Wi-Fi) 900-MHz band and will not help the consumer. Efforts to extend the range of residential Wi-Fi in the 2.4- and 5-GHz bands have been championed by a few but spurned by the majority of the industry, possibly because Wi-Fi in the home is seen as mature and the focus is on increasing sales in new markets.
Residential Wi-Fi is the industry’s core market. It’s the reason mobile devices include Wi-Fi, and these devices enable many other markets. But the underlying technology is short of perfect. We should be both excited and grateful that these startups are improving the consumer’s home Wi-Fi experience, while at the same time acknowledge that we in the standards bodies can do more to make their lives easier and their products even better.
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